Thursday, January 08, 2015


I’m knee-deep in my 2016 Peyton Cote novel, tentatively titled Destiny’s Pawn, and the process has me thinking a lot about point-of-view

I started the novel, wrote maybe thirty pages, and immediately decided I needed to use alternating close, third-person points of view. Of course, our single mother / U.S. Border Patrol agent, Peyton, is still front and center, but the spotlight has to hit several other players for the plot to hold up. Tony Hillerman was a master of this, as was Elmore Leonard (see link for an interview with him about point-of-view).

The third person limited point-of-view fits well in crime fiction for a variety of reasons. Among them: it makes it easy for the writer to withhold information. If I’m writing in first person, I have to show my cards all the time – anything Jack Austin, for instance in my other series, knows, the reader also must be told because the book is told in Jack’s first-person voice. In third person, though, I can know things – and other characters can know things – that Peyton doesn’t. Where I ran into problems in Destiny’s Pawn, forcing me to use alternating limited third-person points of view was that things were happening in the Ukraine that were impacting events Peyton deals with in northern Maine. There would, therefore, be no logical way to end the book that offered readers enough information or details to provide a satisfying conclusion.

No one understood point-of-view and its defining elements better than legendary author and teacher John Gardner. Within third person, Gardner defined layers of “psychic distance.” Here is his now-famous chart explaining the range within which an author can maneuver in a close third-person point-of-view.

  1. It was the winter of 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry J. Warburton hated snowstorms.
  4. God, how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging your miserable soul.1

Here, you see the camera zoom in until the reader is squarely inside Henry J. Warburton’s head, the pronoun “your,” in the fifth sentence, forcing the issue.

Many writers feel choosing a point-of-view is the most important decision they make when starting a work of fiction. I, for one, am in that camp.

1Bernays, Anne and Pamela Painter. What If? New York: HarperCollins, 1995: 87.

1 comment:

Eileen Goudge said...

I agree, John. Maybe the most important decision you'll make. I normally choose third person POV, but for my mystery series I'm finding first person to be the right fit.